“Just how thirsty are you” might be the calling card of the most remote pub in the British Isles. The journey to the Old Forge begins at the end of the road; the longest dead-end road in Britain, in fact. It takes two hours of knuckle-whitening driving around hairpin bends and past sheer descents, on a 22-mile taxi ride from the town of Fort William in the western Scottish Highlands, just to get to the end of the road, at Kinloch Hourn.
Accessible only by sea ferry or by a two-day, 18-mile hike across the Scottish Highlands from the small settlement of Kinloch Hourn, or an even longer, 28-mile trek from the hamlet of Glenfinnan, the Old Forge Pub sits in the village of Inverie, on the southern coast of the Knoydart peninsula. I ask again, “Just how thirsty are you?”
Forming part of the so-called Rough Bounds – the “highlands of the Highlands” – Knoydart is remote and inaccessible, even by local standards. There are no streetlights, you can’t get a mobile phone signal, and it boasts seven miles of paved roads but even those modern conveniences are unconnected to the mainland road network. Around 120 residents lived there at the last count, spread across 86 square miles: That’s approximately the same population density as Alaska. The majority of those brave and hardy souls live in Inverie, and now, after a community buyout in March 2022, most of them own a stake in the Old Forge.
In the decade prior, the pub’s legendary status had waned, with the previous owner closing for six months each winter when tourists were few. The pub’s community spirit was lost; so too its status as a year-round sanctuary for tired, thirsty hikers.
Absolute sacrilege! How can you have a pub that closes six months of the year? It ought to be illegal!
As one of the local residents commented, “When it’s dark, windy and horrible, which is most of the time in a Scottish winter, and often in a Scottish summer as well, you need somewhere you can go and relax, meet up with your friends, and celebrate stuff together. For an outsider to enjoy this atmosphere I have to ask just how thirsty are you, and the answer is VERY.Locals were so desperate for somewhere to go during the dark winter months when the pub was closed, they erected their own makeshift wooden bar around an old table on the shore of the loch near the pub. Drinking beer while they froze!
When the Old Forge was finally put up for sale in February 2021, a community buyout was quickly proposed, and the response was emphatic. 90 shareholders, or 75% of the local population responded by putting their own money into it.
If you’re up for a bucket-list adventure, you start with a first day’s hike, which skirts the southern shore of Loch Hourn, a steep-sided, fjord-like body of water that reaches like a witch’s finger between the peninsulas of Glenelg and Knoydart. The route traces the edges of the loch shore, which is mostly rocky and easy to discern, but often collapses into boggy marsh, which sucks at your boots and smears most of you in mud. This was once a deer-stalker’s path, and, more forebodingly, a coffin road: A route along which corpses were carried to the Kilchoan burial ground in Inverie. Fittingly enough, Loch Hourn translates from Gaelic as “Lake Hell”.
But first comes purgatory. You duck your way along loch-side paths overgrown with jungle-like greenery, which pours water down your necks and soaks you through every few yards. You pick your way on hands and knees across natural stepping stones over seething rivers. Conditions seem to lend credence to the repeated weather report you hear from locals and passing hikers: “Three months of solid rain.” Just how thirsty are you?
You spend the night at Barrisdale bothy, a basic shelter left open for the use of hikers that apparently last saw a lick of paint sometime in the 1950s.
The next day you cross the Knoydart peninsula from north to south, fording waterfalls where rotten wooden bridges have been trod through, and plodding up the seemingly endless slopes of Mam Barrisdale, a modest mountain whose peak is the route’s highest point (See the picture above). It gives new meaning to the term “pub crawl”. Finally you arrive at the Old Forge and the question you had when you started is now totally irrelevant: Just how thirsty are you? You’re way beyond thirsty.
As you enter the pub, after two days deprived of such luxuries as clean water and fresh food, you gaze up at the glittering bounty behind the bar, like Charlie Bucket surveying the chocolate factory: lagers, bitters, IPAs. “What’s it to be, lads?” said O’Neill, your host.
“Three pints of Seven Men, please. And repeat, ad nauseam”. Seven Men is the local brew made in an old church. Now you know just how thirsty are you.
The morning sun, glistening over the eastern shore of Loch Nevis, pierces your brain like a lightning bolt shattering a tombstone. You stagger out of bed and stumble around, unwilling or unable to open your eyes. Fumbling for a glass of water, you find the door handle instead, and emerge, blinking, into the dawn. Several drinking colleagues, similarly dishevelled, stand waiting. The thing is done; the dead are still living. One common thought runs through everyone’s mind.
Now how the hell do we get home?